“Fashion should be exciting,” Maheen Khan tells me. Yes, it should I concur.

“We are at the cusp of a new decade. We just can’t continue plodding about in complacency,” she adds.

But right now, fashion in Pakistan isn’t exciting and no one knows this better than Maheen herself. As a pioneer in the industry, Maheen lay some of the first few building blocks to the local fashion industry.

She has seen the ebb and flow of aesthetics, the crests and the troughs, the exciting times when every show hinted at a rosy future, and the current dismal ones where clothes drone in in a mundane, forgettable procession.

Of course, fashion has always remained exciting within Maheen’s own atelier — a haven where she easily waltzes around the fine line between creating original design and ensuring commercial viability.

But not all designers are able to figure out a way to create trend-setting design which will also generate business for them by appealing to the country’s predominantly conventional (and often boring) sartorial tastes. Right now, Maheen’s turned her discerning eye towards these others.

As the newly appointed Chairperson of the Fashion Pakistan Council (FPC), Maheen Khan will be helming two seasonal editions of Fashion Pakistan Week (FPW) every year, where many of these designers will be showcasing their work. Maheen may also showcase her own collection and up the ante at fashion weeks.

A smattering of others may also present shows that win rave reviews and manage to push that elusive fashion envelope. But Maheen knows — as does any fashion critic — that there will be those who will be thinking far too commercially.

And she can’t exactly jostle them into thinking otherwise. There is only so much that a chairperson can do. But Maheen begs to differ. She says that it’s about time to do so much more.

“As senior designers, we are to blame for promoting mediocrity by giving people merely what they want to buy as opposed to telling them that there are other options that they could also wear! We need to work towards changing the perception of fashion for the average woman.”

Maheen Khan is no stranger to organising fashion weeks. But is she ready to ride the fast-paced Fashion Pakistan Week whirlwind in 2020 as the newly-elected Chairperson of the Fashion Pakistan Council?

How will FPC and, moreover, FPW manage to achieve this? “It will take time and we will be taking baby steps,” says Maheen, proceeding to describe how new boards have been appointed to facilitate the different responsibilities of the fashion council.

FPC spokesperson Deepak Perwani shows at FPW Winter Festive ’19
FPC spokesperson Deepak Perwani shows at FPW Winter Festive ’19

Policy decisions and the business end will be managed by a ‘Board of Governors’, which includes filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, designer Shamaeel Ansari and entrepreneurs Ronak Lakhani, Ziad Bashir and Yasin Peracha. A separate Executive Board will be creating and handling the events.

This board will include individuals from different genres, including event management and styling.

“I have appointed three key stylists: Alishay Adnan, Samiya Ansari and Amal Qadri. Designers taking part in FPW will have the choice to work with any one of these,” says Maheen.

What will taking on board stylists achieve?

“Most designers don’t think about styling because they are inexperienced with regards to fashion weeks. Sometimes a good collection just doesn’t make impact without great styling. That’s how it is done all over the world, and we have to try to do the same here. But not all designers can afford to pay the participation fee for fashion week as well as hire a stylist. This is how we can help them out.”

She continues, “And quality above all is everything. In the past, sponsors have often pressurised fashion councils to put forward a fashion event that is at least three days long. But if I am not happy with the content, I will snip the days down to two. Sponsors need to learn to value good design over everything else.”

The question remains, is the local catwalk still capable of churning out enough good design that inspires and excites?

2019 was a dismal year for fashion weeks overall. But perhaps, starting out on a new decade, we should set our skepticism aside for now.

Maheen, having chaired the FPC before and only recently having ended her term as Vice Chairperson, is no stranger to organising fashion weeks. And her plans make sense on paper. But in recent times she has often confessed to feeling exhausted even when she is putting out a single showcase. Is she ready to ride the fast-paced fashion week whirlwind?

“I think I am. I have thought about this at length and I have realised that the key to getting anything done is to delegate responsibility to different individuals and to trust that they will get the job done. In the past, everyone would have too much to do but I am now focusing on building a strong infrastructure. That’s the only way forward.”

FPW in the coming spring will be following a particular layout: a part of the event will be dedicated entirely to urban high street trends, acknowledging how the niche domain of couture is increasingly taking a backseat to young, urban fashion.

The second day will focus on glamour and will be titled ‘Lights, Glamour, Fashion’. The third and final day will pay tribute to Karachi’s cosmopolitan style and will be headlined ‘Karachi by Night’.

For FPW 2018, Khan showcased a collection featuring a message of environmental awareness.
For FPW 2018, Khan showcased a collection featuring a message of environmental awareness.

Looking back over the decade that has been, Maheen says, “We have worked hard to lay the foundations of Pakistani fashion. Like all businesses, the business of fashion — and of fashion week — has of late been thwarted by the fluctuating economy. But we have weathered so much more over the years — the threat of terrorism, strikes and changing political orders — and survived. A multitude of young brands spread out their wings on the FPW catwalk. Some of them have gone on to build spectacular careers. I hope that many more in this new year will do so. Onwards and upwards.”

And in a world weighed down by economic concerns and a fashion industry where creativity often gets suffocated by the consistent demand for commercial design, one hopes that Maheen’s plans lead to better days for Pakistani fashion.

One hopes that other events — aside from FPW there are so many others — also make an effort to steer design away from generic waters. Onwards and upwards? Hopefully.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 19th, 2020